Scripture, Reflections and Music on the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus
Back around Easter time I asked people if they had any questions about the stories we had been hearing over the previous weeks. I put out a Question Basket for those who might not want to ask questions out loud. Most of the questions fell into two categories: 1. Why the cross? And 2: What really happened at Jesus’ resurrection? I figured I better say something about those questions before I take off for a few months!
Let me start by saying, “I do not have any answers for you.” Each of us has to wrestle with those questions ourselves. Sometimes it helps to know what the church has taught about those things through the centuries. I find it VERY helpful to know that there has never been only one teaching or one understanding of Christ’s death or resurrection. There have always been several. All of them are attempts to explain something that was both shocking and mysterious to the disciples of Jesus’ time – the torture and shameful death of a man who embodied God’s love, and the experience of his new life among them after he had been buried.
Thousands of books and articles and millions of sermons have been preached on the subject through the centuries. There’s no way I can summarize all of that thought in one sermon. So I’m going to start with just 3 passages of Scripture – and look at what each one says about Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’ve also copied a couple of articles which may be of further interest to some of you.
Let’s begin with the book of Acts, since we are in the season of Pentecost. It is the Acts of the Apostles which recounts the action of the Spirit through Jesus’ early followers. There are many sermons preached in Acts about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the third chapter of Acts, after the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit, Peter and John are brought before the religious authorities to account for their healing of a lame beggar:
This is a part of what they said, according to Luke: (Acts 3)
“You killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. …I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration…
In a later testimony (Acts 10) Peter tells the family of Cornelius, a Roman officer: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with Power; ….they put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
In the book of Acts, Jesus is the anointed messiah of God, foretold by the prophets, who suffered as other prophets did but was vindicated by God who raised him from the dead. He is the Source of Life and through him we have forgiveness of sins. There is no indication that the forgiveness of sins is directly tied to Jesus’ death, but rather to his identity as the one anointed by God.
The letters of Paul have a different approach to understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul uses multiple images and metaphors to explain this to his primarily Gentile audience. In the Second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: (2 Corinthians 5)
“For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. …the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. ..So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has been made new! All this is God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us….For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus, here, is the judge of all, the one who died for all, the one in whose death we participate and with whom we are raised. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a process Christians participate in with him, and by participating in that continual process of dying and rising we are renewed, and the whole word is renewed with us! The assumption behind Paul’s writing is that we Gentiles were estranged from God – we were not God’s friends; God was unknown to us. We were living in sin because we didn’t know God’s way of righteousness. Through Christ those trespasses against God’s justice are not held against us, because we too are given a new life. The words “God made him to be sin who had no sin” may refer to the image of the scapegoat or sacrificial lamb, which in both Jewish and some Greek and Roman traditions was to be completely pure in order to take on the sins of the people, and therefore wipe their slates clean.
If this is so, that takes us to the letter to the Hebrews – one of the latest sections of the New Testament, where the image of sacrifice – the image that has become normative for many people’s understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus – is most thoroughly explored. But before we hear the next reading, let’s do some singing:
My Lord, What a Morning # 708 VU
In order to understand the letter to the Hebrews, you need to understand the temple rituals for The Day of Atonement. According to the Jewish Enclopedia online, “the sprinkling by the high priest of the blood of the bullock, the ram, and the second goat, consecrated to the Lord, was in full keeping with the usual Temple ritual, and distinguished itself from the sacrificial worship of other days only by the ministrations of the high priest, who, clad in his fine linen garb, offered the incense and sprinkled blood of each sin-offering upon the Holy of Holies and the veil of the Holy Place for the purification of the whole sanctuary as well as of his own household and the nation. “ It was an offering of reconciliation, not some kind of pay-off to an angry God. One of the interesting things about this is that though in the earliest forms of the ritual it was the priest who was atoning for the people’s sins, later on it was understood to be God who was doing the atoning for the people. It was considered a time of special blessing when the presence of God was particularly real and close to the people.
The letter to the Hebrews takes the image of Jesus as shepherd of the sheep, and adds to that the notion of the sacrificed lamb or ram AND the image of the high priest who makes the thank-offering for the people.
From Hebrews: “God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. …When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. …”It is fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering….In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest…. (Hebrews 9) For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
For the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant than the one witnessed to in temple worship – and he quotes Isaiah 8, referring to a covenant that will be written on the hearts of the people, and in which people’s sins will be forgiven.
Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross #142 VU vs. 1 and 3
In relation to these passages there are three points I want to make:
1. The understanding reflected in these passages is one in which all of life is, in a sense, plotted out by God before-hand. While free will is spoken of, there is also reference to people being fated or chosen to believe or not, to turn away or not, to be saved or not. This is very different from the “clockmaker” God many people functionally believe in – in which God sets the universe in motion then pretty much leaves us alone. Where you fall on that spectrum of belief – from predetermination to absolute freedom from divine intervention – will profoundly affect how you interpret what happened to Jesus.
The believers of the early church needed to make sense of a terrible tragedy – one that still troubles us today. How could God let this happen to Jesus? Or worse – how could God make Jesus go through this? So they sought insight in Scripture and found images and metaphors to help them make sense of it: the suffering servant and the new covenant spoken of in Isaiah; the history of the prophets and their mistreatment at the hands of the people; the rituals of temple sacrifice and the Day of Atonement that they knew. They came to the conclusion that this is what God was doing in Jesus – that what seemed horrible and tragic was for a good purpose. We learn from their insights, and add our own, as we seek to understand Jesus’ crucifixion.
2. The second thing I want to say is that our understanding of the Incarnation and of the Trinity profoundly affect how we will understand what happened.
If we believe Jesus to be the Son and only the Son of God, then we have a Father who will choose to have his Son tortured for the good of others. But if we believe Jesus to somehow incarnate – make flesh – the fullness of God – then it is God him-or herself who is on the cross – suffering in order to bring people back to a holy way, back into relationship. Either Jesus the Son remains steadfastly obedient to the Father even unto death, knowing it is for the redemption of the world, or God’s very self takes on death on behalf of the people.
If we believe Jesus is a prophet alongside other prophets, and not in any literal sense divine – even if he is the most important prophet of all who have come before or since – then Jesus becomes another in a long line of prophets killed by religious and secular authorities because they continued to challenge the system in which they lived. What makes a difference with Jesus, is that by his resurrection, he is vindicated in the most powerful way possible. God is saying, “Look at him. He’s alive! You couldn’t kill him, you couldn’t kill the message he brought, it will live on as he lives on!”
3. The third thing I’d like to say is that the resurrection, too, is a mystery. The early church understood it in two ways: one, that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of the resurrection of the dead taught by generations to be the first signs of the in-breaking of the Day of the Lord – the day when God would come to judge and renew the earth. This is a profoundly Jewish understanding of resurrection, in which all the dead sleep in the earth and then are resurrected and brought to judgement on the Day of the Lord.
The other way they understood it was as a release of the spirit from a physical body – though the apostle Paul emphasized that what resulted was a spiritual body, not a bodiless spirit. What that means, we don’t know, but it’s definitely influenced by GrecoRoman philosophies which rejected the body and saw it as a prison holding back the spirit.
Stories about the resurrection differ. Sometimes Jesus can be touched, sometimes he can’t. Sometimes he is recognized, sometimes he isn’t. The stories, like the metaphors around the death of Jesus, are attempts to capture what cannot be captured in words – the experience of meeting Christ, not as a martyr dead and buried, but as a triumphant living presence. Questions about what kind of body he had or how long he had a body or why he needed to ascend to heaven if he was a spirit – they’re interesting to ponder but they’re not actually central to that basic experience of Christ, alive.
The people who wrote the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t actually there; they were collecting the memories and the traditions passed down to them by the Christian community, and re-shaping them as a tool for evangelism. Some of the differences in how those stories are told and interpreted may have been quite significant to the communities in which they were told and retold; some of them may be the style of the particular storyteller; some of them may be echoes of earlier stories in Scripture woven into Jesus’ story; some of them may be traditions from the surrounding culture that have been included to reinforce the importance of Jesus to others.
History is clear that Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross. Christian testimony is united in saying that he was alive after his death. Is there any proof for that testimony? None that would stand up in a laboratory. But down through 2000 years, Christians have experienced Christ alive and moving in the world. The testimony of the resurrection is the experience each modern day believer has of him alive in their hearts and in the world. We may come to that experience in different ways, and interpret it through different lenses – some of them the Biblical ones we’ve looked at today, some of them our own. It is the experience itself that gives us confidence. As the hymn we’re going to sing next says, “The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing: all things are mine since I am Christ’s. How can I keep from singing?”
My Life Flows On #716 VU